How to Neutralize Red Devil Lye
Table of Contents
Though the original Red Devil Lye is not available, sodium hydroxide is still used to clear clogged pipes, make soap and prepare pretzels. Because lye, or caustic soda, is a strong alkaline, it is essential to neutralize spills to avoid damage to eyes, skin and various surfaces in the home.
The original Red Devil Lye is no longer available to the public, though similarly labeled products are available for use as drain cleaners. Red Devil drain cleaner contained 100 percent sodium hydroxide (NaOH), which reacted with grease in drains and dissolved hair and other organic matter to clear clogged drains.
Pure food-grade sodium hydroxide is currently used for a variety of projects, including making soap and preparing pretzels for baking. Because sodium hydroxide, also known as caustic soda, soda and lye, is a strong alkaline base, it requires quick neutralization if spilled in the eyes or on skin, wood, aluminum or other surfaces.
When selecting a lye product for use in the home, read the label and use the appropriate product for the project. Drain cleaners may contain additional ingredients and are not food-safe products. Whether making soap or using it in the kitchen, purchase food-grade lye to avoid possible contaminants, such as impurities and even metal shards. Follow all the safety warnings on the container and keep it out of the reach of children and pets.
Cautions for Using Lye Products at Home
Add Lye to Water, Never the Opposite
When adding lye to water, always measure carefully and add the lye to the water, never the reverse. In addition, don’t use aluminum pans, utensils or foil, as sodium hydroxide reacts with aluminum. Instead, use stainless steel pans and utensils. Lye added to water produces an exothermic, or hot, reaction—so use ice-cold water unless boiling water is the desired result, such as when preparing pretzels.
While glass containers can be used for mixing lye, over time, lye can etch the surface. Avoid using tempered borosilicate or soda-lime glass containers, such as Pyrex or Visions cookware, as the damaged surface may eventually result in a cracked or shattered bowl or pot. Discard scratched or chipped glass cookware.
Wear Personal Protective Equipment
Put on safety gear before opening the container of lye. Wear long sleeves, long pants and shoes to protect your skin from accidental spills, and then put on long rubber gloves, safety goggles and a mask.
Cover the countertop with plastic wrap or a large plastic bag and assemble the ingredients and tools before beginning the project or clearing the clog. Place a few rags in easy reach to wipe up any spills.
Clean Everything Afterwards
After using the lye solution, rinse and wash all bowls, pots and utensils before removing your safety gear. Clean the countertops and neutralize any spills.
Wash up with the gloves on using dishwashing liquid and hot water and then peel them off one at a time and hang them to dry or put them in the trash. Take the safety goggles and mask off last.
Sodium hydroxide, or lye, is generally available in a powder form, though some drain cleaners are available in crystalline and/or liquid forms. Always store the product in its original container and never mix it with other products, including ammonia, bleach, vinegar or other chemicals or cleaners.
While lye should be treated with caution, it is safe to use at home as long as all safety precautions are followed. Work in a well-ventilated area, open windows and turn on exhaust fans. If possible, work outside on a covered patio, in a carport or in the garage with the door open and box fans running to circulate the air.
Neutralizing Red Devil Lye (Sodium Hydroxide)
Red Devil Lye and other sodium hydroxide products must be neutralized to avoid damage to eyes, skin and surfaces like wood, fiberglass, stone and other common material. Glass, enamel and some plastics are nonreactive, but the safest material is stainless steel.
Because lye is extremely corrosive, it is essential to use safety gear when preparing and using lye solutions. Wipe up spills of powder, crystal or liquid lye and lye solutions immediately with rags or paper towels and dispose of the lye by washing it down the drain with cold water. Put the rags in the trash.
Wet a rag with a weak acidic solution, such as 5 percent white vinegar or lemon juice, and wipe down the entire area to remove any lingering remnants of the lye.
If any lye solution is splashed into the eyes or skin, immediately rinse with cold water for at least 20 minutes to help prevent lye burns on the skin and/or corneal damage. If wearing contacts, remove the lenses and continue rinsing.
If the lye was ingested, rinse out the mouth but do not swallow any water or milk or induce vomiting unless instructed to do so by a medical professional. If it was inhaled, move to fresh air. Call poison control and the local emergency room immediately for specific medical instructions.
Using Lye Drain Cleaner
First, read the directions on the container. Do not use drain cleaners in garbage disposals or dishwashers or in pipes attached to these appliances. Here’s how to clear a drain:
- Scoop or siphon out as much standing water as possible.
- Remove the sink strainer if possible.
- Pour the recommended amount of drain cleaner directly into the drain; avoid spilling it onto the sink or tub surface.
- Add 1 cup of cool water to the drain if necessary to dissolve crystal or powdered lye.
- Cover the drain immediately with a glass bowl to avoid splashing but don’t make it an airtight seal.
- Wait 15 to 30 minutes for the lye to work on the clog.
- Repeat if the drain is still clogged.
- Flush with cold water.
If the clog has not cleared after two applications of the drain cleaner, call a plumber but be sure to inform them that a drain cleaning product had been used and provide the container.
Wipe up spills immediately with rags. Dispose of the rags and the empty container in the trash. If the powder has hardened in the container, throw it all away per your local refuse company’s instructions and purchase a fresh container.
Making Soap at Home
Traditional soaps use lye, fat and water. Use the exact measurements specified in the recipe and a digital scale, thermometer and stick-type blender or electric drill with a mixing attachment to ensure a successful project.
The basic instructions remain the same, though the amount of each ingredient may vary depending on the type of fat used in the recipe. The fat may be coconut or olive oil, bacon grease, lard or a combination of two or more oils or fats.
Follow the recipe exactly to make homemade lye soap. Here’s some general directions for making soap:
- Put the exact amount of cold water into a stainless steel bowl.
- Measure the lye and add it to the water.
- Stir gently to dissolve the lye.
- Cool the lye solution to the recommended temperature, approximately 110°F.
- Mix the oils together or slowly heat thickened or solid fats in a stainless steel or enamel pot.
- Cool the fats to the recommended temperature.
- Pour the lye solution into the liquefied fat.
- Stir carefully or use a stick blender on its slowest speed until the mixture thickens and solidifies enough that an indent stays on the surface.
- Ladle or pour into soap molds or other containers.
- Dry for 24 hours before putting on safety gear and removing it from the molds and/or cutting it into bars.
- Cure the soap on metal racks for six weeks in a well-ventilated, dry location.
After six weeks, test the pH level of the soap to ensure it is between 5.5 and 8.0. Here’s how:
- Put 0.5 grams of the soap and 10 mL of water into a small jar or test tube with a lid or stopper.
- Shake well to dissolve the soap.
- Dip a skewer or stirrer into the solution and put one drop onto a pH strip.
- Compare the color to the chart on the pH strip package to determine the pH level and ensure it’s within the safe range.
- Wrap the bars in wax or kraft paper for storage.
Boiling Pretzels in Lye
While boiling the shaped and uncooked pretzels in baking soda and water is one option, the traditional method uses lye mixed with water. As always, put on safety gear, cover countertops with plastic and turn on the exhaust fan.
Prepare the dough and shape it according to the recipe before mixing the lye and water solution. Here’s how to mix the lye and prepare the pretzels:
- Put the exact amount of cold water into a stainless steel bowl.
- Measure the lye into the water.
- Use a stainless steel spider strainer or slotted spoon to put the pretzels into the hot lye solution.
- Soak the pretzels for 10 to 15 seconds.
- Remove them from the hot lye solution and place them on a stainless steel rack over parchment paper or another nonreactive surface.
- Move the pretzels to a parchment-covered silicon or stainless steel baking sheet.
- Score, salt and bake at 450°F for 14 to 16 minutes or according to the recipe directions.
Dispose of the lye solution by turning on the cold water and slowly pouring it down the drain. Rinse the bowls, pans and utensils with cold water and then wash with hot water and dishwashing liquid.
- National Library of Medicine - Pub Chem: Sodium Hydroxide
- Iowa State University Extension and Outreach: Glass Kitchenware Cautions
- Cook's Illustrated: How to Work with Lye Safely
- Michigan State University: St. Joseph County 4-H - Soap Making
- LabChem: Sodium Hydroxide Safety Data Sheet
- Vector Solutions: Lewis Red Devil Lye Drain Opener
- Grainger: How to Neutralize Acids and Bases
- The University of Akron School of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering: Micelles to the Rescue – Soap Experiments
- University of Kentucky: The Sentinel-Echo: Making Lye Soap Is Economical and Fun
- National Museum of American History: Suds Up: How to Make Soap, 19th-Century Style
- King Arthur Baking Company: A Baker’s Tips for Safely Working With Lye
- King Arthur Baking Company: German-Style Pretzels
With degrees in fine and commercial art and Spanish, Ruth de Jauregui is an old-school graphic artist, book designer and published author. De Jauregui authored 50 Fabulous Tomatoes for Your Garden, available as an ebook. She enthusiastically pursues creative and community interests, including gardening, home improvement and social issues.